“Ha! ha! ha! – he! he! – a very good joke indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo – he! he! he! – over our wine – he! he! he!”
These giggling words are among the last uttered by Fortunato, the rather unfortunate victim of a deadly practical joke in Edgar Allan Poe’s memorable tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.” In that short story, the narrator Montresor directly discloses neither the “thousand injuries” he’d received from Fortunato nor the final “insult” that led him to vow revenge, but he does present his plan as the solution to a puzzle: “I must punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Montresor must take his revenge upon Fortunato in such a way that the victim knows all, while the perpetrator is in no danger of being caught. Montresor’s elaborate charade with the wine, the catacombs, the trowel, and the stones reveals his ingenious solution. As is well known, Poe himself took great pride in his analytical, puzzle-solving abilities, and Montresor’s plot reveals a certain gift for ratiocination that Poe valued. At the final moment, after Fortunato has been almost completely immured, Montresor calls his name. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” And thus is buried another “jingle man.”
In this series of posts, “Joker Poe,” I have argued that Poe is best viewed as a literary prankster, a practical joker who employed his prodigious intellect, his acute awareness of the marketplace, and his gifts for writing to satirize the culture and society of his era. In a sense, his own readers are suckered in by his tales, poems, and criticism, while Poe himself is likely having a chuckle at their expense. Poe was the great theorist of “Diddling,” which he considered as one of the exact sciences, and he insisted that no diddle—a swindle, confidence-game, or prank—is complete without a “grin,” but only one that the diddler himself wears, seen by no one else. Poe’s propensity for diddling extended to his literary career, which can be seen not only in those works which are clearly hoaxes, but also in his poetry, his tales, and his criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe made enemies, some of whom have not been so sanguine in accepting the thousand injuries and uncounted insults visited upon them by the grinning diddler.
After Rufus Griswold, whose calumnious portrait of Poe in an obituary caused outrage but likely led to Poe’s eventual enshrinement in a popular-cultural canon, perhaps the most famous of the fabled detractors of Poe during his lifetime was also America’s leading public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The phrase “jingle man” is well known in American literary studies, not to mention infamous in Poe Studies, as Emerson’s dismissive appraisal of Poe. That the Sage of Concord might dislike Poe is not surprising, since Poe was probably as ardent an opponent of Emersonian transcendentalism as anyone other than Herman Melville, and Poe’s invectives were especially caustic when it came to the Boston literati, many of whom appeared to be well-nigh slavishly devoted to Emerson’s thought. Poe also criticized Emerson himself as belonging to “class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism’s sake.” In a follow-up to Poe’s eccentric little series on “Autography,” in which he proposed to analyze the handwriting of famous authors, Poe humorously suggested that “[t]he best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? […] to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living.”
In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.
As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.
For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.
In my previous entries in this series, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe might best be thought of as a literary prankster, a “diddler” or a practical joker, who delighted in “putting one over” on his readers. This flies in the face of the wildly popular depiction of the nineteenth-century poet and littérateur. To his legions of fans and to the multitudes of merchants making commercial hay (and no small amount of money) off of Poe’s mythic image, Poe remains best known and best loved today as dark, brooding, alcoholic, madman-genius. However, to the great disappointment of my own students, all biographical evidence suggests that this image is largely false. Yes, Poe had his occasional problems with the bottle, although in this he was not all that far from the norm in his besotted epoch, and yes, he wrote some stories about madness, mayhem, mystery, and mortality, although he wrote far more burlesques, hoaxes, satires, and spoofs. Above all, Poe was a canny magazinist, an astute judge of the appetites of the reading public, and he used his own literary talents and business acumen to give the people what they wanted.
One of the things that readers desperately wanted, as Poe knew better than most, was a shock, especially in the form of tales combining elements of the bizarre, extravagant, terrifying, and weird. If Poe is best remembered today for his tales of terror, it is in part because he recognized that such tales would be the most popular in his own time. For example, after one publisher objected to the gruesomeness or bad taste of “Berenice” (a rather disturbing tale, it’s true, but well worth the read!), Poe explained that “to be appreciated, you must be read,” and he pointed out that such stories are “invariably sought after with avidity.” What kind of stories are so popular? “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles” whose nature consisted of the following: “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” In other words, Poe asserts, excessive, over-the-top stories are what the people demand. So, again, if Poe became a master of horror, it is because Poe knew that horror sells.
How does this relate to my argument that Poe is best viewed as a literary practical joker? Poe’s burlesques, hoaxes, bizarreries, and practical jokes are obviously examples of his perverse sense of humor. But what about those stories that are “clearly” meant to be read as works of horror, mystery, or suspense? It is not for nothing that Poe is widely considered a master of Gothic fiction, right? (My use of the scare-quotes is an obvious giveaway, indicating my skepticism over whether any of Poe’s work could “clearly” be so described.) I would assert that even Poe’s apparently Gothic tales of terror are, on one level or another, also examples of satire, humor, or hoaxing. That is, even in his apparently serious fiction, Poe’s impish, satirical, and critical attitude prevails. This is not to say that we need to re-categorize Poe’s tales of terror as comical pieces, but it is to suggest that the prankster’s spirit infuses all of Poe’s work. As an example, I would like to look at “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Poe’s most famous and celebrated works of Gothic horror. Notwithstanding its gloomy atmosphere, mysterious characters, and horrifying climax, the story of Roderick and Madeline Usher’s frightening downfall is thoroughly suffused with playful humor. Continue reading →
In my last post, I suggested that Edgar Allan Poe was essentially a practical joker. That is, although he remains best known today for tales of terror and mystery, of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe in his own time was very much a satirist or humorist. Not infrequently, the joke is on us, the readers, who are duped into believing the most incredible things, as becomes embarrassingly clear in “The Balloon-Hoax” or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” for example. After all, Poe was the philosopher who was able to explicate “diddling” – that is, tricking or swindling – as “one of the exact sciences.” In his various hoaxes, satires, and “diddles,” Poe proved himself to be an accomplished prankster, which unsurprisingly stood him in good stead in the bumptious literary marketplace of his era.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the way that Poe the Poet might also be considered a practical joker. Poe’s poetry, unlike his more well-known prose tales, is generally thought to represent the Romantic ideals of supernal beauty. In the best poems, Poe’s mastery of sound and sense helps to produce poems of haunting loveliness, as in “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” But, then, it should also be observed that many of his poems appear to be crudely imitative; Poe concedes that his earlier poems were essentially attempts to reproduce Byron, for instance. Some might be labeled failed experiments, while others appear to be downright awful. Who can listen to “The Bells” more than once without going mad? The pealing repetitions are so intensely jangling to the nerves that one can only conclude that such was the poet’s intention. The point of the poem is to drive us crazy! But even in Poe’s most successful poems, there is a lurking sense that Poe is putting one over on us. The reader of Poe’s poems must always be on guard, as one cannot shake the vague suspicion that the poetry may be an ornate armature upon which to hang a joke in poor taste. However, we can identify at least one poem in Poe’s corpus that is unquestionably also a practical joke: “O Tempora! O Mores!”
“O Tempora! O Mores!” is one of Poe’s earliest poems, although it was not published until years after his death. Its title, deriving from Cicero’s famous lament and translated “Oh, the times, Oh, the manners [or customs]!,” is already suggestive of humor in a modern context. The phrase is generally reserved for those satirizing the jeremiads of the era. Studying the poem more closely, we see that the jaunty doggerel appears to lampoon a single character, a handsome salesman or clerk who has charmed his lady customers, but who the poet recognizes as an unintelligent and unworthy “ass.” The poem was written sometime in 1826, when Poe was only 17 years old, and in my own reading I had taken it to be a satirical critique of the crass, commercial culture of the United States in the nineteenth-century. That is, like the biographer Kenneth Silverman, who noted the poem’s “scorn toward the clerk as a plebian vulgarian, and its contempt for the world of merchandising,” I saw the young poet in “O Tempora! O Mores!” as a Romantic bemoaning the unrefined, boorish, middle-class values of the day. Like nearly everyone else, I was perplexed about the final word of the poem, in which the speaker names his object of ridicule, “Pitts.” But, in the end, I was able to file this away as mildly interesting juvenilia.
However, I heard a fascinating talk by renowned scholar Richard Kopley at the 2014 MLA convention, which shed light on the backstory of the poem. (An abstract of the talk appears in The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14.2 [Autumn 2013]: 250–251.) Alas, I can offer only a teaser here based on my faulty memory of the presentation, but Professor Kopley is currently working on a scholarly biography of Poe, which I have no doubt will be well worth the wait. For now, let me just say that the poem “O Tempora! O Mores!” was the acid coup de grâce of an elaborate practical joke.
Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most popular writers in the history of American literature. In the twenty-first century, Poe finds himself at the center of movies, television shows, and internet memes; the very name or image of Poe can be considered “click-bait” on the web. Yet the pop-cultural version of Poe is not a very accurate picture of the man, as a number of Poe scholars (a.k.a. pedantic killjoys) like to point out. Although biographers reveal the man to have been a savvy, business-like, professional magazinist, someone who knew what sold in the literary marketplace and who gave the people what they wanted, most fans prefer to confuse Poe with some of his more memorable protagonists. Many readers envision Poe as a dark, brooding, Gothic madman, a visionary poet obsessed with waking nightmares, horror, and the mysteries beyond the grave. The author of “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Raven” is assumed to be obsessed with premature burials, murder, and death. But what if this is all a ruse? What if, to employ a term that Poe uses with approval, Poe is “diddling” his audience. In Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, I argue that Poe is perhaps best viewed as a practical joker, a highly skilled literary prankster whose fundamental talent lay in putting one over on people. More frequently than we care to admit, the victims of these confidence games, these diddles, are us, the readers. While we are thrilled by otherworldly wonders, aghast at inhuman terrors, and in awe of supernal beauty, Poe is grinning.
Although Poe is best known and best loved as a figure of dark romanticism, he was also a humorist. In fact, Poe wrote far more pieces that could be considered humor or satire than those that would be called horror. If his first published tale (“Metzengerstein,” which actually could be viewed as a burlesque) was not intended to be comical, then his second (“The Duc De L’Omelette”) certainly was, and one of the last tales published during Poe’s lifetime, “X-ing a Paragrab,” was a silly little piece lampooning the newspaper or magazine industry itself. As David Galloway has pointed out, “comedies, satires, and hoaxes account for over half of his output of short stories.” (Significantly, Galloway’s observation appears in his introduction to a collection of short stories titled The Other Poe, whose title serves to emphasize the degree to which Poe is not widely known for his comedies and satires.) By numbers alone, one could argue that Poe was primarily a humorist, if sometimes a black humorist, and that his tales of terror or mystery were secondary to the main body of his collected works.
They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:
“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”
The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”
What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.
The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.
Don and Alleen Nilsen
An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here.
In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original. Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own. He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.
Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was. In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common. Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books. Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.
Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun. When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat. How I wonder where you’re at.” This is merely fun word play. But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance. Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism. G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children: “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.” Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes: “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.” The poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!” Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”